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The Ellison Elision

A congressman rewrites his own history.

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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Making a name for himself in Minneapolis as an attorney activist in the 1990s, Ellison emerged as a local leader of the Nation of Islam under the names Keith X Ellison and Keith Ellison-Muhammad. He first ran, unsuccessfully, for public office seeking the DFL (Democratic) endorsement for state representative as Keith Ellison-Muhammad, a self-identified member of the Nation of Islam. On the threshold of Ellison’s election to Congress, I wrote about his record of support for the Nation of Islam in the article “Louis Farrakhan’s First Congressman” (The Weekly Standard, October 9, 2006).

Ellison was still toeing the Nation of Islam line in February 2000, this time in a speech at a local National Lawyers Guild meeting in support of Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson (formerly Kathleen Soliah), who had recently been apprehended at her home in St. Paul. In the course of remarks supporting Soliah/Olson, Ellison complained about the charges previously brought against “Qubiliah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, in retribution against Minister Farrakhan,” by the Office of the United States Attorney in Minneapolis. 

By the time Ellison was elected a Minnesota state representative in 2002, he had shed his pseudonyms and his affiliation with the Nation of Islam. In May 2006, when he secured the endorsement of the Fifth District DFL convention, Ellison’s long public record as a leader of, and apologist for, Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam created a problem for him. In the context of a competitive Democratic primary the following September, Ellison’s past threatened to undermine his support from segments of the Democratic base including, but not limited to, the district’s Jewish community. 

Writing about Ellison on the blog Power Line during the spring and summer of 2006, I discovered this personally when prominent local Democrats sought me out to share information about Ellison’s background. They were not pleased by the prospect of a former local leader of the Nation of Islam serving as the face of the Democratic party in Minneapolis, or by the failure of Minneapolis’s Star Tribune to retrieve information in its own archives for a glimpse of Ellison’s
public doings on behalf of the Nation of Islam.

Ellison dealt with the problem of his past by submitting an extremely misleading letter to the Minnesota chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council. In the letter Ellison artfully minimized his involvement with the Nation of Islam while he nevertheless acknowledged his role “work[ing] with local members of the Nation of Islam.” In light of his past “connections” to the Nation of Islam, Ellison stated in his 2006 letter: “I have long since distanced myself from and rejected the Nation of Islam due to its propagation of bigoted and anti-Semitic ideas and statements, as well as other issues.” In mitigation he pleaded ignorance, claiming: “I did not adequately scrutinize [their] positions and statements.”

Ellison makes no such acknowledgment or plea in My Country, ’Tis of Thee. Rather, he rewrites history to eliminate his long involvement with Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, dispatching his activities down the memory hole. Looking back on his career in Minnesota, Ellison has erased Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam from the picture. Ellison has expunged his own record. 

Ellison does not simply airbrush the picture. He presents himself as a critic of Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. He writes disparagingly that 

the organization wasn’t set up to take on the establishment. It was designed to avoid racism—not confront it. The NOI preached separation, which was the same message preached by the Ku Klux Klan. .  .  . The NOI posed no threat to the status quo; it posed no threat to the system of racism.

Ellison pours it on, criticizing Farrakhan’s performance at the Million Man March (which Ellison attended) and after: “He could only wax eloquent while scapegoating other groups.”

Ellison goes out of his way to note: “I didn’t come to [Islam] through the Nation of Islam, as some African Americans have done.” Although he must be drawing on his own experience, Ellison conceals the starkly autobiographical element in his observation: “In the NOI, if you’re not angry in opposition to some group of people (whites, Jews, so-called ‘sellout’ blacks), you don’t have religion.” I doubt whether leaving the Nation of Islam has helped Ellison much in the anger management department, but it can’t have hurt.

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